IT’S A WIRED WORLD

CBS-11’s Todd Bensman and Robert Riggs broke some new ground last night on the City Hall corruption case. Looks like it’s going to be a long, hot summer for a lot of people. Here’s the recap from CBS-11:

CBS-11 EXCLUSIVE: FBI SENDS WIRETAPPED DEVELOPER TO OFFICIALS WITH BRIBERY OFFERS

SOURCES: FBI NOW PLAYING RECORDINGS TO GAIN COOPERATION,TESTIMONY AGAINST OTHERS

Jul 8, 2005 10:00 pm US/Central
By Todd Bensman and Robert Riggs
The Investigators
CBS-11

This past May, three businessmen approached prominent Dallas business leader Comer Cottrell in his office with an offer they hoped he wouldn’t refuse. As CBS-11 first reported last week, one of the three men asked Cottrell to pass along a bribe to Dallas City Councilmember Don Hill as incentive to push through a mired affordable housing project in Hill’s district. Cottrell says he was offered a slice of the bribe to pass it to Hill.

But it was probably a good thing for the 73-year-old multi-millionaire and black business icon that, according to him, he turned down the offer. One of the three men was wearing a wire for the FBI. The meeting of the three men with Cottrell, it turns out, was set up by the FBI as part of an elaborate federal bribery sting that CBS-11 confirms has furnished tens of thousands of dollars in phony bribe money, undercover informants and wiretaps of staff at City Hall as part of an ongoing investigation involving government subsidized affordable housing.

The man sent to Cottrell by the FBI is James R. “Bill” Fisher, and Cottrell was not the only one Fisher has approached wearing a wire with similar offers, CBS-11 has learned. Fisher’s voice shows up on four different recordings made as part of the FBI’s sting operation. The FBI has been playing the tapes to potential criminal defendants in an effort to leverage their cooperation. An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on this story.

Fisher is the owner of Odyssey Residential Holdings, the affordable housing company that just broke ground on the $22 million Homes of Pecan Grove development in Don Hill’s southeast Dallas council district. Odyssey stood to gain $6 million in tax credits on the project, which won city council approval in a split vote last November, with Councilmember Hill leading the push for approval.

Cottrell said the FBI very recently informed him that Fisher was wired for the meeting that May at which Fisher pitched the idea of bribing Councilman Hill. The effort aimed at Cottrell apparently went nowhere when Cottrell refused to accept money or solicit favors from Hill. But CBS-11 has learned that Fisher has approached as many as four other people on the secret behalf of the FBI, and it remains unknown whether any of them were as reticent to take Fisher’s money as Cottrell was.

In several recent interviews with CBS-11, Fisher refused to confirm or deny he has worked as an FBI informant offering bribes ultimately aimed at city leaders. The FBI has seized materials from the offices of council member Hill, Hill’s appointee to the Dallas Plan Commission D’Angelo Lee, and Council member James Fantroy.

“I can’t comment on that, not at all. I really can’t,” Fisher said when asked to comment on findings that he worked on behalf of the FBI. Asked if he would deny such a serious assertion, Fisher would only answer: “No. The best thing is just not to comment on these things.”

How Fisher came to cooperate with the FBI by wearing a wire and offering bribes for his Pecan Grove project remains a mystery that may not become evident until the investigation progresses, although CBS-11 has confirmed that the FBI’s subpoena of Councilman Hill’s office records included all material related to Pecan Grove.

But Fisher’s wired meeting with Cottrell, as well as other information developed by CBS-11, offers the first public glimpse of one key method the FBI has used in the public corruption investigation of Dallas City Hall – bribery stings. The incident also reveals for the first time new areas of federal inquiry and business figures of interest to the federal probe who have not yet been named publicly.

For instance, Cottrell said that one of the two men who accompanied Fisher to the meeting in May is Desoto general contractor Ron Ferguson. The other man present that day, whom Cottrell says helped arrange the meeting, is former San Francisco 49ers pro football player Kevin Dean, who today runs a cement company.

According to Cottrell, both men had something to gain from Fisher’s Pecan Grove development. Cottrell said that Ferguson introduced himself as general contractor for Fisher’s development and that Dean was a subcontractor who would provide cement for the project.

The former pro football player’s Grand Prairie cement company was raided by the FBI earlier this month. Dean has declined repeated requests for interviews about the meeting he attended with Cottrell. His attorney, Larry Jarrett, declined to comment.

Ron Ferguson did not return phone calls. He could not be found at his Desoto offices on several occasions. Until two months ago, Ferguson’s TNL Construction was to have worked as a contractor on the Pecan Grove development. Records show the council approved Fisher’s development despite controversy and a recommendation by city staff against it.

When Fisher’s Pecan Grove project was up for approval before the City Council last November, Ferguson was among eight people who showed up to speak on its behalf. The project was in trouble because city staff had recommended that it not be approved on grounds that Odyssey was undercapitalized, over-extended and inexperienced, according to a Nov. 5 city staff memo circulated among council members.

Testifying at the Nov. 10 council session, Ferguson had high praise for Fisher and the developer’s willingness to farm out contracting work to minority companies. Ferguson testified that his own motivation to speak out for the project was “very, very selfish…

“I think that being chosen as one of the contractors to work on that project says that he’s interested in not just developing the project but also working with the community.”

Two others who spoke out in favor of the project run a nonprofit development organization that also has been raided by the FBI. Darren Reagan and Adam McGill run the Black Employees Association of Texas, which became known for developing an Oak Cliff shopping mall. Fisher’s Pecan Grove project contained provisions for retail development.

Councilmember Hill moved to approve Fisher’s Pecan Grove project, backed by Councilwoman Maxine Thornton-Reese.

“I’m going to continue as I did last week to encourage my colleagues to give this community and approve this project,” Hill said, after heaping praise on the speakers.

But other council members and Dallas Mayor Laura Miller spoke against the project, as did Council members Elba Garcia and Mitch Rasansky, all of whom voted against it on grounds of Odyssey’s questionable financial strength and experience. Council member Fantroy recused himself for conflict of interest.

The project won passage. Several months later in May, when Cottrell says Fisher, Dean and Ferguson approached him, the project had bogged down in a time-consuming issue over parking lot designs. The Dallas Plan Commission approved the new parking design the next month, on June 7.

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